Built in Context

When Ray Huff and Mario Gooden read the program brief for the museum at Virginia Key Beach Park—a $15 million, 54,000-square-foot institution that will commemorate what was from 1945 through the end of segregation Miami’s “Negroes only” beach—they immediately recognized an opportunity. “This was a chance for a museum that has African-American content and issues to get it right,” says Gooden, a partner in the Charleston, South Carolina–based firm Huff + Gooden Architects, which had been one of the groups short-listed in the building’s design competition. But it was less the architects’ skin color than their philosophy that made them naturals for the job. “The brief talked about the relationship between building, landscape, and culture,” Gooden recalls, “which was right up our alley.”

“They didn’t just do a sculpture on the land,” affirms David Shorter, executive director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, which ran the competition. “They did a landscape design and created a building that was part of that environment.” This, he explains, was crucial. “There’s a story to be told about the whole 82.5 acres of the park—we call all of it ‘the museum’—and their design helped to enhance that story.”

Huff and Gooden (in association with BEA International) presented their scheme to the jurors late last September. A week later they were awarded the project over competing firms AARRIS Architects and the Freelon Group. The win did more than move the nine-year-old office into the spotlight; it also recognized a partnership that draws its energy from the tensions and ambiguities that inform the landscape—not only of design but of race, class, and culture.

In a sense those ambiguities can be seen in the circumstances of Huff + Gooden’s existence. The two met in 1990 when Huff, then director of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, invited Gooden, a recent Columbia architecture school graduate, to be a visiting professor. “I’d heard he was an outstanding student, and thought someone coming out of Columbia would be a great addition to Clemson because it was such an incestuous place,” Huff says. Gooden accepted and also worked as a project designer in Huff’s practice. Despite the 17-year age difference and resulting disparate styles—Huff’s natural elegance and habit of telling personal stories to illustrate architectural points seem old-school compared with Gooden’s restraint, theoretical perspective, and slight edge —the pair bonded. “I thought, wow, this was someone I shared lots of interests with in terms of film and the music Ray played in the office—Philip Glass, Steve Reich,” Gooden recalls. “No one was doing that in Charleston.” There was also a personal connection. “Mario’s from Orangeburg, South Carolina, a town about seventy-five miles from Charleston,” Huff says, “which is my family’s home. So here we were, two people from Orangeburg, two of probably only half a dozen licensed black architects in South Carolina. I just had a sense that it would be the kind of marriage that would be mutually beneficial.”

It still took Huff seven years of wooing, while Gooden worked and taught in New York and Florida, to close the deal. Gooden’s resistance stemmed in part from the seeming futility of attempting to create contemporary architecture in Charleston, a place that takes pride in its historic buildings, is meticulous about preservation, and tends to view any Modernist construction as, in Huff’s words, “a contamination of the fabric of the city.” What’s more, Gooden says, “this was the first state that seceded from the Union, and they remind you of that with pride if you go on a carriage tour. I wanted to be someplace that was more culturally and intellectually progressive.” Huff understood, having lived elsewhere for years. “I made a commitment that I would return only on my own terms,” he explains. “That which I enjoyed, I would acknowledge, and that which I didn’t, I would reject.” This formulation finally worked for Gooden, as did the notion that, as he says, “We live here, but the practice is everywhere.”

Their ambivalence is certainly understandable. Yet watching the architects, dressed from head to toe in designer black, striding through the antebellum streets past beer bellies and Peterbilt caps—and observing the shift in consciousness that occurs when expectations regarding history, culture, and place are roiled by an alternative reality—one senses a creative benefit to Huff and Gooden’s situation. It is precisely this tension, as it exists in the built world, that the partners seek to expose and interpret in their work. “We start by asking questions, ‘What is a project really about, what are the issues?’” Gooden says. “We look at it in terms of its cultural or social conditions and try to find a way to translate that architecturally.”

Huff and Gooden’s sensitivity to those conditions is evident in their reconstruction of the Herbert Hasell Aquatic Facility, a public pool patronized primarily by African-American children. The structure stands at an edgy social nexus—within sight of housing projects, a largely black public high school, and a former potter’s field, and across the street from the football stadium of the Citadel, Charleston’s military academy. (“Until the nineties they still played ‘Dixie’ when the band marched in,” Gooden says.) When asked what the original building was like, Huff replies, “Imagine Soweto. And yet I and my contemporaries learned to swim there. It was important that we restore the dignity of that experience to the architecture.” Apart from creating a new pavilion that, with an upswept roofline, exhibits a templelike grace, the partners made a critical gesture: by resiting the building they opened the pool visually to the street. “Before you could drive by and not even know that kids were there enjoying themselves,” Gooden says. “The new arrangement lets the pool be visible as a kind of oasis. At the same time it exposes its relationship to the other elements—there’s a clear view from the Citadel to the kids.”

The partners’ methodology also produces design that reflects its context joyfully, notably their renovation of the Early Childhood Development Center, the College of Charleston’s laboratory preschool. Charged in part with redesigning the main classroom building —a dilapidated, nearly windowless midcentury box—Huff and Gooden found their design in the “it takes a village” formulation, which Huff describes as “a culture in which kids learn by having a shared experience.” They drew on the layering of the Charleston streetscape. “Here you have the ‘single house,’ a single-room-thick house with a piazza [a covered porch] and a side yard,” Gooden says, explaining that they also used “layered urbanism” within the school. “There’s a ‘street’—the main corridor—then the teachers’ offices and observation rooms, then classrooms, a covered exterior, and then a play area.” All four classrooms can be connected by opening their shared walls, amplifying the sense of an informal, nurturing neighborhood. “How comfortable you are as a child dictates what you’re able and willing to do, and the design supports that,” the center’s former director Margaret Humphreys says. “They opened up our world by opening up the building.”

Given the partners’ preoccupations, it’s no surprise that the museum competition galvanized them: Virginia Key, a 1,000-acre island in Biscayne Bay, is a landscape rich in complexity. African-Americans began using the beach in the 1920s, when it was only accessible by boat and sea-bound fisherman would drop off bathers in the morning and retrieve them when they returned at day’s end. In 1945, after a group of black men staged a protest at a whites-only beach, Dade County made the arrangement official, constructing various amenities and providing ferry service until Rickenbacker Causeway opened for vehicular traffic in 1949.

The beach closed in 1982, and by the late 1990s was about to slip into history—at which point a group of the original beachgoers led by M. Athalie Range, Miami’s first African-American commissioner, approached the city about preserving it. The Virginia Key Beach Park Trust was established and shepherded the site onto the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, with the idea for a commemorative museum emerging shortly after.

Struggling to express this history in design, Huff and Gooden found a photograph of a baptism in the trust’s collection. The image, as well as a visit to the site, opened Gooden’s eyes. “When I first heard the story I thought this must have been horrible, to get dropped off in the morning and stranded,” he recalls. “And it was actually just the opposite—they were able to take this abject condition and elevate it.” With their sharp instinct for emotional narrative, the architects came to see the boat passage as a kind of baptism that induced what Huff calls “a transformative state change” from the pressures of segregation to the pleasures of escape—a transformation they could convey by blurring the distinction between topography and structure.

Working with landscape architect Walter Hood, Huff and Gooden analyzed the different components of the park. “The idea was to think of these as the DNA of the site and then translate the strands of ecology into design ideas,” Gooden explains. What emerged was a series of moments on the land that recalled the park’s history with visual and/or physical connections to the building site. The team created the Dune Garden and Commemorative Palm Walk, which flank the broad Memory Field; the museum enjoys commanding views of the beach, bay, and ocean. Even the parking lot—which Huff says had been “a significant social space”—was drawn into the scheme with a promenade that leads to the building’s main entrance. “The seamless relationship between landscape and architecture really captured our imagination,” recalls competition juror Maurice Cox, who strongly credits Hood’s contribution. “It was as if the building was a viewfinder at the service of this extraordinary landscape.”

Programmatically the museum remains a simple structure with two wings: one contains galleries and exhibition support; the other a theater, a restaurant, and administrative offices. However, in the architects’ renderings, the building—with its multiple voids, imposing cantilevered volumes, and towering treelike columns—seems to be at once rising from and succumbing to its surroundings, like a Modernist Machu Picchu. “This is a flood zone, so the first floor needs to be raised about sixteen feet,” Gooden says. “That became an opportunity to let the commemorative landscape move beneath the building and up into it.” The architects designed a series of ground-level open-air courts—“places accepting of ball gowns and bikinis,” Huff says, quoting executive director Shorter—and created two approaches to the entrance, taking pains to blend each with the natural and the built. The concrete stair that rises from the parking lot is partly carpeted with vegetation, and soaring sugarcane stalks grow alongside it. The second way in, a combination stair and ramp that is pierced by sugarcane and edged by turf, slopes gently upward from Memory Field to the museum’s entry porch. “The clients really responded to that,” Cox says. “The pageantry of this long wide ramp with patches of landscape sprouting out of it was incredibly appealing.”

The blurring continues in the extensively glazed multistory lobby, from which, Gooden says, “the entire building seems to be exploding outward.” In the glass-enclosed circulation ramp that rises next to the two levels of formal gallery space to the turf roof, Huff and Gooden devised a gesture that expresses their vision with special poignancy. “As both a shading device and a way of moving the story back to the landscape, we intend to take the museum’s photo collection and have it blown up and laminated on the glazing,” Gooden says. Thus as visitors ascend and turn to look out, they’ll see the ghosts of the original beachgoers—young, happy, taking their ease—at play above the landscape infused with ambiguous history.

The museum is scheduled to open in fall 2008, yet both Huff and Gooden are quick to say that, while Virginia Key represents a milestone, they see it as a beginning, not an arrival. The road ahead, moreover, is fraught with existential challenges. “With the exception of my family, Ray, and the office, my community is in New York,” says Gooden, who currently splits his week between Charleston, Manhattan, and New Haven as a Yale professor. Huff has deeper local roots. But citing exploding real estate costs he says, “There will be a time when there are literally only a handful of blacks on the peninsula [the land mass that contains Charleston’s core].” As Huff and Gooden become more global and the city loses its affordability and diversity, it’s easy to imagine that the condition that informs their work—that of being African-American Modernists practicing in the historic South—might cease to exist.

Yet the architects’ approach is, finally, neither race nor region specific. “The thing that’s inescapable in architecture is that it’s always about the landscape,” Huff says. “Even if it was a mansion on forty acres in Connecticut”—he laughs—“though I don’t think anyone will ever call us for that, there’s still a condition to be read—social and emotional landscapes as well as physical.” All three of which are ever open to exploration. “In a certain sense there are no limits,” Gooden says, “because questions can always be asked.”

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